udge's ruling on N.C. Constitution ends red-light program
By Eric Klamut
Rocky Mount Telegram
Saturday, January 31, 2009
For many Rocky Mount residents, the thought of not having an all seeing eye 24 hours a day, seven days a week posted above intersections in the city most likely is a joyful one.
Rocky Mount ended its red-light camera program in the closing months of 2008. The cameras — which were posted at five intersections throughout the city — were removed by Trafficpax, the private firm contracted by the city to maintain the cameras.
Since the red-light program began in 2002, the cameras netted 18,966 citations for stop light violations during the six-year period the city participated in the camera initiative, city officials said.
However, because of a landmark court case that ruled proceeds from the fines issued for citations in municipalities utilizing the camera program were to go to local schools, Rocky Mount and many other North Carolina municipalities bowed out of the red-light program.
For safety’s sakePrior to instituting the program, Rocky Mount police looked at other cities statewide that were using red-light cameras, Rocky Mount police Capt. Wayne Sears said.
Data from the cities pointed to reductions in several types of accidents such as rear-end and angle collisions, he added.
“We liked the type of accident reductions we were seeing,” Sears said. “Mainly, the right-angle impacts. Angle (accidents) are the most dangerous.”
After the contract was awarded, the administration of the program was moved to the city’s traffic engineer.
“The decision was made that it was not an enforcement (issue). It was a safety initiative by the city.”
Police and city officials studied more than a dozen intersections throughout Rocky Mount to see which intersections would benefit the most from the cameras.
Peek Traffic the initial contracting company that implemented the program for the city, did the preliminary testing.
In the end, officials decided to install the cameras at five intersections: George and Hill streets; Wesleyan Boulevard and Stone Rose Drive; Sunset Avenue and Circle Drive; Benvenue Road and Tiffany Boulevard; and Wesleyan and Sutters Creek boulevards.
“We did see reductions in accidents at all five of those intersections,” Sears said. “Those reductions remained throughout the program.”
According to a 2004 study conducted by the city, the five intersections equipped with red-light cameras experienced a 31 percent reduction in total accidents, 23 percent reduction in rear-end accidents and 17 percent reduction in angle accidents.
Crunching numbersDuring the six years that Rocky Mount utilized the program, reports show an overall sum of $1,025,363 was collected in the fines that resulted from the citations.
Of that number, $792,746 was paid to the private contracting firm and an additional $20,440 was paid to adjudicators, the N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles and in refunds.
After all of those expenses, the city was left to claim $212,177.
Assistant City Manager Peter Varney said, initially, the idea was for the program to pay for itself.
The city would use the funds it received from the red-light cameras to pay for safety upgrades at the intersection.
Varney said that for every $50 fine issued for the violations, $39 went to the private contractor and $11 went to the city.
A portion of the $11 covered the administrative costs associated with the program, he said.
“We knew it wouldn’t have been a lot of money,” Varney said.
However, a provision in the N.C. Constitution and a court case involving the city of High Point changed the program’s standards for all cities using red-light cameras.
According to the N.C. Constitution, “the clear proceeds of all penalties and forfeitures and of all fines collected in the several counties for any breach of the penal laws of the state, shall belong to and remain in the several counties, and shall be faithfully appropriated and used exclusively for maintaining free public schools.”
The N.C. Court of Appeals unanimously ruled in favor of the constitutional provision, meaning the $11 proceeds received by Rocky Mount all would go to the local school system.
“If you follow that, you can’t pay the contracts,” Varney said. “We didn’t want to renew the contract because we can’t abide by the (financial) requirements.”
The decision was considered a death knell for municipal red-light camera programs across the state.
Varney said because of an informal agreement with the local school district, the city has not paid local schools, but rather put the red-light camera proceeds in reserve.
“They didn’t want to force the cameras to go away,” Varney said.
The city’s contract for maintaining the cameras — which included the mailing of citations, photo downloads of violators’ vehicles and general maintenance on the cameras — ended in November with the company Trafficpax, which purchased Peek Traffic in recent years.
Operation of the cameras ended in early October, according to data from the city.
Other cities such as Charlotte, Fayetteville, Greenville, Greensboro and High Point also have scrapped the red-light camera program.
Uncertain impactWith all five of Rocky Mount’s red-light cameras removed by mid-January, city officials are uncertain of how accident trends will shift without the cameras.
Steve Yetman, Rocky Mount’s traffic engineer, said most likely, it’s too early to tell.
“We won’t know for a while,” Yetman said. “Until we have enough time with the cameras down. It’s hard to say exactly what the impact will be. We won’t know for a couple of years.”
Varney said during the course of the program, the number of citations issued declined each year.
“That’s normal as more people become aware of the cameras,” Varney said. “We think they did have an impact on safety conditions at the intersections.”
Sears said the red-light camera program was a benefit to the Rocky Mount Police Department because it was comparable to having a constant police presence at the five locations.
The cameras also allowed officers to focus on more intense crime issues, he added.
“They freed-up officers’ time while serving as the same deterrent,” Sears said. “Officers did not have to sit there and conduct enforcement.”
Using the cameras at the five intersections also was much more cost-effective, he said, noting a citation takes about 15 minutes to write in addition to the time spent waiting for violators.
“For an officer to sit there, it could be five minutes, or it could be hours,” Sears said. “(The cameras were) equivalent to one of our officers sitting there 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
With the cameras gone, he said he hopes residents will continue to drive safety at the intersections.
“We hope that citizens have become accustomed to driving very carefully due to the six-year presence of the cameras,” Sears said. “We hope that people continue safe driving habits.”
View comments Hide comments (16)
02/01/2009 08:55:58 PM
So over $1 million dollars was taken out of the local economy with most going to an out of state firm. Way to go! Let's just keep sucking money out of the local economy so the city visionaries can squander it on extravagant projects!
02/01/2009 06:01:41 PM
Phil, the courts didn't make new law. The red light money always belonged to the school system. Just because the city council was ignorant of the law doesn't make the money belong to Rocky Mount. Only the aggressive annexation taxes belong to the city. Until we bust 'em.
02/01/2009 04:15:03 PM
I know in AZ there are cities that issue speeding tickets by radar cameras. We need some of those here to raise some revenue
02/01/2009 03:00:17 PM
This is a huge problem. The cameras were a good idea, until the courts came in and screwed it up. The ACLU comes to mind. I know Dancy's head is spinning now, but its the damn truth. The city had this issue taken care of, until some stupid court of appeals overrides them. Sad state of affairs.
02/01/2009 02:49:18 PM
Phil just got an email back from S.B.I. Maybe just maybe, something will finally get looked into. Rocky Mount deserves better than this dogsh@t!!!
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